The biggest tour, maybe not in the rock world, but certainly in the world of museum exhibits, touches down in Chicago next week for an extended stay. And it brings the energy and mass hysteria of rock to the seemingly unlikely venue of the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown.
Yet somehow the groundbreaking exhibit "David Bowie Is" makes perfect sense for the MCA, spanning as it does photography, film, video, fashion, set design, preserved artifacts and, above all, the cult of the artist as a self-constructed commodity, a position Bowie shares with many previous MCA exhibit subjects, such as Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.
The exhibit suits the MCA "in so many ways," said curator Michael Darling, who has "tailored" the "David Bowie Is" exhibit, developed by Victoria Broakes and Geoffrey Marsh in London a year ago at the Victoria and Albert Museum, to the MCA space and an American audience.
Thus far, Chicago is the first and only U.S. stop on the exhibit's tour, which has gone from London to Toronto to Brazil to Berlin, and will continue on to Paris and the Netherlands next year after closing its MCA run Jan. 4.
"We've over the years always peppered our exhibition schedule with shows that were outside of the fine-art realm, and so this fits in that pattern," Darling said. "There's so much of a performance program that's part of our identity, too.
"I think this really shows him to be a consummate artist, rather than just looking for the hippest collaborators," Darling added. "It's much deeper than that."
It was amusing, in the recent David Bowie documentary "Five Years," which has been running on premium-cable Showtime, to hear Bowie the world-renowned pop star talking about how it wasn't until his "Let's Dance" album in 1983 that he really entered the mainstream. Bowie had Top 40 hits throughout the '70s on U.S. radio, collected on the various versions of the album "Changesbowie," from "Space Oddity" through the glam hits "Ziggy Stardust," "Suffragette City," "Rebel Rebel," "Jean Genie" and "Diamond Dogs," through his later, poppier material like "Young Americans" and "Fame," and back to the avant-garde with "Heroes" and on to the '80s hits "Let's Dance" and "China Girl."
Bowie was typically referred to as a "chameleon" in those days, altering his look and public persona from album to album and tour to tour, but what the exhibit makes clear is that it was always with an artistically contrived purpose in mind.
Darling pointed out it was "to use that word 'contrived' in the most positive sense. Everything is incredibly considered, and through the exhibition you really get this incredible sense of him crafting this image over and over again through various collaborations.
"There's a commitment and an intensity to it you see from the very beginning through to the end that I think does really set him apart from his peers."
Born in 1947 in the working-class area of Brixton, Bowie came of age in the '60s as the Beatles and Rolling Stones were dominating popular music -- in England and here in the States.
Bowie, however, was quick to seize on the natural, evolutionary changes the Beatles and Stones were going through from album to album, and to exaggerate that shape-shifting quality for artistic effect.
Certainly, other artists, like the Beatles, were particular about the suits they wore and, later, the fine points of the costumes for "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," as well as the album cover, and the Stones' Mick Jagger could be as particular as anyone in selecting, for instance, the Elvis-esque jump suits of the Stones' 1972 world tour, but Bowie took that natural butterfly flittering of the rock star and made it into art.
Take, for instance, the deliberately over-the-top glam period running from "Ziggy Stardust" through "Diamond Dogs" in the early and mid-'70s, captured in the exhibit through the Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit Bowie wore on tour, along with his "Aladdin Sane" photography with Brian Duffy and the even-more-outrageous Terry O'Neill shots for "Diamond Dogs," as well as the Kansai Yamamoto vinyl bodysuit for the "Aladdin Sane" tour -- all Bowie at his most androgynous in an era known for that.
"I think with him you really get a sense in that era of a social agenda," Darling said. "He's really kind of going out there with this androgynous appearance as a way to kind of shake up the status quo in terms of what we think of as gender roles and things like that. And that becomes really apparent in the exhibition -- just how far out there he was. Which now, of course, feels very fresh and relevant."
Indeed, with gay rights, marriage equality and transgender fashion models all in the news, now more than ever, it seems as if the world is just now catching up to where Bowie was 40 years ago.
The MCA seized on that era as a marketing device by deciding to "take part in Chicago's Gay Pride Parade with a Bowie float, knowing that that part of the story would appeal to that audience," Darling said.
The thing is, Bowie never let even his own audience catch up with him -- until now, with the exhibit, culled as it is from his own archives in a way that preserves these changes as if in amber. Darling has subtly emphasized that by making the exhibition more chronological than it was in London.
"One thing I thought was really interesting about the Bowie story is his constant reinventions," Darling said. "So I did a few little tweaks to the exhibit layout to emphasize those dramatic shifts from one character to the next.
"So you really get to dive into each character with a little more depth," he added. "You can see how he worked through the various kind of potentialities of any character and then dumps that and moves on to the next one. He's never really gotten stuck or rested on his laurels. And I thought a more chronological order might make that clearer to the audience."
Darling has also worked to remove it from the "real world" by casting the exhibit in dark surroundings on the museum's fourth floor, where they usually install major exhibits. "It's an exhibit I would say is very immersive," he explained. "You really feel as if you're in another world. You're not out on Michigan Avenue. You're in this really kind of artificial space."
The MCA will keep it from becoming too far removed from the performance hall by enhancing the exhibit's run with a steady stream of performance pieces. Boy George will come to town to spin music as a disc jockey for the exhibit. Film director Todd Haynes will discuss Bowie's glam period with Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell in October, and in November the Mekons' Chicago-based transplants Sally Timms and Jon Langford will perform Bowie love songs.
Performances meant to enhance the exhibit's run kick off at noon Tuesday, day of the show's debut, with a David Bowie tribute concert in Millennium Park. And a documentary on the exhibit, also titled "David Bowie Is," screens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at theaters across the country, including some in the suburbs.
With Bowie's lasting and exotic appeal, the exhibit should bring crowds to the MCA in droves -- perhaps not the droves of a Soldier Field performance, but certainly droves by the standards of a museum exhibit. For the first time, the MCA is selling tickets in advance, with 10,000 already gone, and likewise for the first time it will use staggered entry times -- 250 people per half-hour.
"We're really doing it just to sort of control the crowds a little bit," Darling said, "more to make sure that the experience is pleasurable for each person."
It's worth noting that the MCA got the exhibit over many others who sought it through, yes, good old Chicago hard work.
"I think it was the early bird gets the worm," Darling said. "We just really jumped on it as soon as we heard about it and really just started negotiating in a serious way with real dates right from the beginning."
The only thing missing from "David Bowie Is" might turn out to be David Bowie himself. Although this is the exhibit's only U.S. stop, and he spends most of his time these days in New York City, Bowie is not scheduled to be at the opening on Tuesday.
"We're really not expecting that," Darling said. "But we're quite hopeful that his curiosity will get to him and he'll come out here some time during the show.
"So we'll try to be ready for that if and when it happens."